PNG Faces Bleak, Brutal Future New Zealand Herald 5 July 2005 By Greg Ansley They play hardball politics in Papua New Guinea. In the 2002 elections, most voters in the town of Mendi and the district of Tari in the Southern Highlands stayed away as gunmen took over polling booths and named their candidate on all available voting papers. The Mendi police station was stormed, policemen overpowered and ballot boxes containing about 30,000 marked ballot papers stolen. Another 50,000 were taken from other centres. Soldiers, including senior officers, disobeyed orders confining them to barracks to illegally help favoured candidates, prompting one local electoral manager to complain: "There is no form of democracy here, and we have been controlled under the barrel of the gun." From the top down, violence and corruption have made PNG one of the most dangerous places on Earth. The capital, Port Moresby, was named the most dangerous of the 130 cities in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest annual global hardship survey. The impact of this culture, says a chilling study released yesterday, is hammering almost every aspect of life in what has become a regional tinderbox. A rapid rise in gun ownership and trafficking has hit the economy, education, health and other essential services. It has made crime more deadly, made tribal warfare even more deadly and given force to corruption that undermines the basic pillars of democracy. The report, Gun-Running in Papua New Guinea, was written by New Zealander Philip Alpers, an adjunct professor at Sydney University’s School of Public Health, former senior fellow at the Harvard Injury Control Research Centre, and a former Fair Go journalist. His report was prepared for The Small Arms Survey, an internationally supported research project based at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Although focusing on PNG’s Southern Highlands province, the report holds implications for the broader Pacific region and underlines the emphasis on the collection and disposal of weapons in the successful peace operations in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. "The Pacific experience demonstrates how deeply even a small number of small-arms can damage small communities," Professor Alpers writes. "Lawfully held civilian stockpiles of small-arms in the Pacific include 3.1 million firearms, or one privately held gun for every 10 people. This surpasses the global ratio by more than 50 per cent." 2 In PNG, the results are written in blood. The accelerating gun culture has meshed almost seamlessly with tradition and local customs of tribal warfare, aided by a general contempt for "outsiders" and their laws, including provincial and national government. "Allegiance to the tribe, clan and sub-clan remains stronger in most cases than to the abstract notions of citizenship, state and nation," the report says. Every Southern Highlands tribe now has access to high-powered guns, with proliferation spurred by fear. If one village has weapons, its neighbours also seek them for protection. About 2450 factory-made guns are held privately, including between 500 and 1000 high- powered weapons, mostly Australia-made SLR, American M16s and Armalite AR15s. Professor Alpers points out that because these weapons are obtained almost exclusively for use against humans, and they are several more times likely to be used in murder than a similar gun in the world’s highest-risk countries of Ecuador, Jamaica, Colombia and South Africa. Deadlier weapons are reported to be in circulation. Most are rarely - if ever - used but they include mortars and more than 100 machineguns missing from Defence Force armouries. Grenades and grenade-launchers have been used in tribal wars. Professor Alpers says home-made weapons are ubiquitous in the Southern Highlands, even if weapons commonly made from water pipes can be more dangerous to the user than the intended victim. Most of the weapons now underpinning crime, corruption and violence are pillaged from military, police or prison stocks and distributed by gun-runners financed and facilitated by politicians and civil servants "up to the highest levels". "Many, and perhaps most, illicit high-powered firearms in the Southern Highlands were deployed by political candidates, sitting MPs and their supporters to impress and intimidate both rivals and voters," Professor Alpers writes. During the 2002 elections, voters in the Kagua district were intimidated by a gunman with an M16, and polling official Camillus Wambopa was threatened with a .38 revolver by a candidate who later sprayed the polling station with bullets from a Glock semi-automatic pistol. In the run-up to the election, supporters of another MP shot dead a policeman, kidnapped the rival candidate he was escorting, and held him for ransom in a cage, along with two surviving policemen. Last August, Parliament was adjourned "for the safety of Members" after Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare accused the Opposition of using guns to forcibly detain MPs in the lead-up to a vote of no confidence in his Government. One Cabinet minister claimed he had been threatened with guns to vote with the Opposition. A small number of weapons found their way across the Torres Strait after the Bougainville conflict ended. 3 Successive investigations have dismissed repeated reports of large-scale trading of arms for PNG’s fabled "Niugini Gold" cannabis - none of which has turned up in noticeable amounts in Australia - although there is evidence of guns-for-drugs trading within PNG. But the scale of theft from Government stocks is alarming. A national audit has shown that 1440 police guns - 30 per cent of the total - are likely to have leaked to criminals. Similar disturbing figures have been reported by military armories, with 1501 firearms "unaccounted for", including 907 assault rifles and 102 machineguns. Of the 7664 M16 and SLR assault rifles delivered to the Defence Force since independence in 1971, 2012 remain in stock. Often stolen weapons are flown throughout PNG, sometimes in coffins supposedly carrying bodies returning to homelands for burial, or concealed in commercial cargo. In one infamous case, soldiers spirited six SLRs away after returning from an Independence Day parade. The guns turned up in an air cargo shipment four months later, leading to the arrest of a smuggling ring that included soldiers, police and a school headmaster, none of whom was ultimately convicted. No one knows how many people are killed and injured by this trade. Professor Alpers’ report quotes Sister Gaudentia Meier, Mendi’s Catholic health secretary: "More than 90 per cent of all deaths in [the Southern Highlands] are not reported. It costs money to register a death, so people don’t." Others put the level of unreported deaths as high as 98 per cent. But the recorded murder rate in PNG has risen to six times that of Australia. Port Moresby has a murder rate 42 times that of Sydney - even without what Professor Alpers says is possibly an equal number of unreported homicides. Guns have also become key weapons in violence and humiliation, with horrific reports of gang rape at gunpoint, often with husbands and male relatives forced to watch. Guns also feature in rape and the abuse of civil liberties by police. And Professor Alpers says rental guns and mercenary gunmen have become unpredictable wildcards in political and criminal violence. One gunman interview for the report, known only as "Mark", described how he and other sharpshooters killed opposing fighters flushed from cover by skirmishing parties from the tribe that had hired his skills. Guns are also taking a heavy toll of the innocent. Basic healthcare services are languishing or vanishing as violence has scared medical workers away from hospitals and clinics. Mendi hospital was abandoned for a year, and key programmes against Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough and other diseases suffered heavily. And because enemy homes, crops, property and facilities are key targets of tribal warfare, education has been hit by the destruction of schools. 4 Local and national economies are being devastated. The 2002 United Nations Human Development Report ranked PNG 133 out of 173 nations. It now has the lowest human development index and the highest poverty index of 12 Pacific nations. Development agencies are becoming wary. A UN Habitat team fled in 2003 because of the threat of violence, and PNG’s risk rating for UN personnel is at a war footing similar to that of Iraq. The answers are not simple. Professor Alpers says the most effective short-term tool could be to choke the supply of ammunition, rendering weapons useless, rather than the gun surrenders and buy-backs that have frequently failed elsewhere. He says the Government also needs to tighten control over its own weapons, publicly destroy surplus stocks and clean up its own act, reforming the law and justice sector to "regain the trust of those who have turned to guns". http://www.nzherald.co.nz/index.cfm?c_id=2&ObjectID=10334142 FOR NON-COMMERCIAL, ACADEMIC OR PRIVATE USE ONLY This item is provided by Gun Policy News (www.gunpolicy.org) for reference purposes only, under the ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright legislation. 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